Bodies sell products. Open any magazine in America and you will see parts of bodies used to sell everything from shoes to Coca-Cola. An advertisement for Tom Ford perfume shows a bottle of perfume between a woman’s breasts; a fashion spread for the magazine Details shows a woman being used as a table, and topless buff men sell Abercrombie and Fitch clothing. The common term for this is objectification—the act of reducing a person down to just her or his parts, and has been discussed by a range of philosophers from Immanuel Kant to Martha Nussbaum’s more modern seven attributes of objectification.
While many have touched upon the topic, Barbara Fredrickson, a professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Tomi-Ann Roberts, a professor at Colorado College, were the first two academics to specifically use the term objectification theory to describe how American culture encourages young girls to develop an outsiders’ view on themselves. Basically, women begin to treat themselves as objects to be decorated rather than people with a mind and a voice who can express their ideas and opinions. Objectification means that a person is seen as “losing their agency” (the ability to act, plan, and make choices.) Instead, they become mere objects who don’t have any capability to experience and no agency, (ability to express themselves).
Self-objectification has several psychological repercussions including reduced cognitive ability, increase of depression, and lower self-esteem. Writer and existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir beautifully described this process as women experiencing doubling: “In narcissism, the self undergoes doubling: An Other, a ‘stranger’ who is at the same time myself, is subject for whom my bodily being is object.” The woman ends up existing in the world by constantly imagining how others are viewing her, instead of having her own experience of the world.
The traditional idea of objectification is that people who are objectified/sexualized are reduced to mere objects, and do not have capacity for choice or experience, is a black and white concept. Either a person has a full mind (like a normal person) or has no ability for experience or agency (like an object). However, this view of objectification has recently been challenged. This recent paper, by Kurt Gray and colleagues, argues that people who are represented by their bodies are perceived not just as mindless objects but instead, have a “distribution of mind.” They are perceived as having more capability for experiences in pain, pleasure and other emotions and less capacity for agency.
Gray and colleagues decided to test this hypothesis that men and women who are represented by their bodies are less capable of agency (self-control and planning) but more capable of experience (sensitive to pain and emotion) in six different studies. The experiments were simple—in one study, 159 participants had to judge two pictures of people—one represented as a body and one represented as a face. They also had to read this brief description:
“This is Erin (or Aaron). She attends a liberal arts college in New England and majors in English. Outside of class, she is a member of a few student groups. On weekends, Erin likes to hang out with friends.”
After reading the description, they were asked to answer three questions by rating the picture from one to five-relating to agency and experience: “Compared to the average person, how much is Erin capable of X.” The “X” was for substituted for—agency-related capacities of “self-control,”“acting morally,” and “planning” and the experience-related capacities of “experiencing pleasure,” “experiencing hunger,” and“experiencing desire.” The results showed that participants who viewed faces perceived them as more mind oriented while the pictures of bodies elicited greater perceptions of experience-focused (hunger, pleasure, desire).
Another experiment showed participants three pictures of the same woman in one of three conditions—clothed, naked, or sexual—and asked participants to evaluate the picture for self-control, acting morally, planning, experiencing fear, desire, and pain on the iden-
tical scales. Then they turned the page over and had to answer two more questions—“How sexually suggestive is the picture on the other side of the page?” and how attractive is the person in the picture?” Each of these questions was answered on a 5-point scale from 1 (Not at All) to 5 (Extremely). The one significant interaction was between mental capacity and being clothed, suggesting that people attributed agency to clothed people and experience to naked people
Although not statistically significant, the results were similar to the above experiment, as suggestiveness increased, perceptions of agency decreased and perceptions of experience increased. This experiment showed that sexualizing people increases the perception of experience, which is very different than the traditional definition that sexualization leads to viewing a person with no agency and no experience.
The implication of these studies is troubling. Focusing on a person’s body in a professional context significantly reduces a person of having agency. The studies have given more insight into perceptions of other people’s agency and experience in several different contexts. While it focused specifically on people’s perceptions of others; it is important to point out that other studies have shown that the people who are objectified, actually have less of an ability to be present and experience flow (complete absorption and enjoyment in what one is doing.) Hopefully, the next group of studies will shed light into the different conditions that influence how people view themselves both as agents and as experiencers and how this impacts their capability for success and enjoyment of life.
This post was originally published on the Incubator, The Rockefeller University blog.